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Chapter 4: Reaching Disconnected Young People

When young people fail to connect to the workforce, severe economic and social problems frequently follow for both those individuals and the larger society they are part of. Alienated from legitimate jobs, these youths will turn to illegal activities, a government-subsidized life, or unproductive dependence on others. Despair and unrest will often follow.

There are millions of young Americans in the “disconnected” category: teenage parents, ­high-school dropouts, graduates who are not employed or ­continuing their education, the grossly underemployed. A Brookings Institution analysis published in 2014 described a “lost decade” for youth employment:

  • The sharpest declines in U.S. employment between 2000 and 2011 fell among teens and young adults.
  • The share of teens with any paid employment during the year dropped from 55 percent in 2000 to 28 percent in 2011.
  • The share of young adults with any paid employment during the year dropped from 82 percent in 2000 to 69 percent in 2011.

Not surprisingly, Brookings found that more vulnerable populations were disproportionately hit by these employment declines. Young people with less education and less work experience were particularly battered by the depressed job market of the past decade. Experts say the factors listed below are particularly likely to depress job success among new entrants to the work force; good training programs must recognize and overcome them:

1. Growing up in a fractured family
Family breakdown brings greater instability, less income, and less adult attention into children’s lives. Today’s soaring rates of single-parenting are putting many children at a disadvantage.

2. A lack of successful role models
Many urban minority youths see relatively few successes in the population around them. “A lot of the students we work with are feeling on the outside,” says Eshauna Smith, president of the Urban Alliance, which specializes in connecting African-American and Latino youths to constructive work.

3. No track record
For young people who fail to graduate from high school, or who graduate but lack work experience, the résumé can be unnaturally thin.

4. Disconnected from practical vocational training
The contemporary emphasis on going to college has eclipsed good vocational training that might be more relevant to some youthful strugglers. Even where programs exist, there can be obstacles that prevent young people from finding or seizing them.

5. Homeless
Around 380,000 minors experience a homeless episode longer than a week in a given year. That can interfere with efforts to hold a job. (Some organizations have cropped up to address this problem specifically, like Juma Ventures of San Francisco, which places homeless youngsters in positions its creates in its own ventures. The successful nonprofit has expanded to Oakland and San Diego, as well as ­Washington State and Louisiana.)

6. Drug abuse
Nearly a quarter of high-school seniors used marijuana during the past month, according to data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and prescription drugs are now abused by 15 percent of high-school seniors. Drug abuse can change personal incentives, interfere with education, alter brain behaviors, eliminate drug-tested jobs, and otherwise become a sizable employment barrier.

7. Criminal activity
Although incarceration rates for individuals under the age of 21 have declined in recent years, law enforcement agencies currently make about 1.5 million arrests of minors annually; 86 percent of these are males—substantial minorities of whom have damaged their employment prospects via a criminal history. (More on this in Chapter 6.)

8. Unwed pregnancy
The CDC reports that 305,388 babies were born to mothers between the ages of 15 and 19 in 2012. These girls often drop out of school and go on welfare assistance, a dead-end that can make it hard to return to mainstream employment.

Not every factor influencing at-risk kids works to their disadvantage. Duncan Campbell, founder of the youth-mentorship organization Friends of the Children, has found that troubled youths often have a significant capacity for entrepreneurship, perhaps because they have spent so much time relying on themselves (which will either break a child or make him unusually independent and resourceful). Campbell and other donors like Gerald Chertavian, founder of the youth ­job-development group Year Up, have been able to identify resilience, capacity for risk-taking, tenacity, and a go-getter attitude as strengths of a subset of disadvantaged youth—who some practitioners refer to, for those very reasons, as “opportunity youth.”

Chertavian encourages participants in his program to view their struggles as potential assets rather than automatic deficits. “We see the challenges and barriers that they’ve faced as what has made them strong and built up their grit,” he told us. “We take a strength-based perspective rather than a problem perspective. That’s fundamentally important. That which you have faced and endured in the past can make you a better employee, rather than someone who is damaged.” Character training can be crucial in helping young people internalize, and act on, this distinction.

The role of education

Many young people are out of the workforce for a very good reason: they are busy in school, earning credentials that eventually will make them better candidates in the labor market. Youths from troubled backgrounds, however, are more likely to be disconnected from school, or struggling in high school or college. There is positive news on high-school dropouts: between 1990 and 2010, the national dropout rate declined from 12 percent to 7 percent. Alas, the remaining dropouts tend to be tightly clustered in urban schools, known as “dropout factories,” which disproportionately include poor and minority students.

Only 45 percent of graduates of the largest federal job-placement effort manage to get and hold a job for at least six months. The successful charitable programs do about twice as well.

For students who do graduate from high school, around two thirds enroll in college of some sort. But many more of these students than is widely understood will fail to finish their degree. Barely half of first-time, full-time undergraduates pursuing a bachelor’s degree finish within six years at the same university. And completion rates are dismally lower at community colleges, especially for low-income students. Just 13 percent of students in the lowest income quartile who started a two-year degree in the 2003-2004 school year completed it by 2009, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

February 2014 data from the Pew Research Center found that millennials (ages 25-32 as this book is written) who had a bachelor’s degree or more exhibited an unemployment rate of just 3.8 percent, while millennials with only a high-school diploma were unemployed at 12.2 percent. Fully 22 percent of millennials with only a high-school degree were very low income.

Donors in search of practical solutions to the problem of young people who are disconnected from the workforce mustn’t see college education as the only answer, because there are many young people who will never cross that line. Rather, the goal should be to encourage the acquisition of skills and knowledge demanded by the marketplace. As Tamar Jacoby, president of Opportunity America, notes, there are good avenues outside of universities.

“Americans have a host of postsecondary options other than a four-year degree—associate degrees, occupational certificates, industry certifications, apprenticeships,” she says. “Many economists are bullish about the prospects of what they call ‘middle-skilled’ workers. In coming years, according to some, at least a third and perhaps closer to half of all U.S. jobs will require more than high school but less than four years of college—and most will involve some sort of technical or practical training.”

Nonprofits like Year Up focus on linking disadvantaged young people with these types of “middle-skill” jobs. Suzanne Klahr, founder of the entrepreneurship-training organization BUILD that is geared toward high-schoolers, says “the only way that we will change this vicious cycle of poverty is by making sure that young people are prepared for the world of work in the twenty-first century. For some students, it’s trade school. For some students, it’s community college. For some, it’s four years plus graduate school.”

The authors of a 2011 study from the Harvard University Graduate School of Education caution against focusing too narrowly on a single definition of educational success. “It is time to widen our lens and build a more finely articulated pathways system,” they argue. Practical economic skills can be as valuable to young people as liberal-arts education.

The Jenesis Group is a family foundation based in Dallas that is acutely interested in connecting disadvantaged youths with jobs in need of filling. It was established in 1987 by Ron Jenson, who was very successful in the telecommunications and health-insurance fields. More than formal education, his foundation’s preferred mechanism is to use social enterprises to firmly connect at-risk teens and early adults with the working world.

“The market is telling us loud and clear that a skill gap exists out there,” says Kim Tanner, senior program officer with Jenesis. “One of the most critical barriers to entry in the workforce is soft skills and professional skills that aren’t easily taught in the classroom. You really need hands-on experience to gain some kinds of understanding.” And so her foundation has made significant long-term commitments to Year Up and Genesys Works, two practical charities profiled later in this chapter that focus on giving young people real-world job experience while still in high school.

Another funder that has been influential in this area is the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Casey is a major supporter of innovative organizations like Girls Who Code, a nonprofit with locations in New York, Detroit, San Francisco, and San Jose that shepherds underrepresented women into careers in computer science. Casey has also been crucial in funding research on youth unemployment. In a recent report subtitled “Restoring Teen and Young Adult Connections to Opportunity,” the foundation concluded:

In the end, work itself is the strongest and most effective “program.” Early job experience increases the likelihood of more work in the future, as well as more employer-sponsored education. A continuum of work experiences from the teen years onward—including volunteer and community service, summer and part-time jobs, work-study experiences, internships and apprenticeships—build job-readiness skills, knowledge and confidence. These encompass not just workplace and financial skills, but also the broader “soft skills” of taking responsibility and initiative, working in teams, focusing on problem-solving, and learning how to contribute.

Connecting high-schoolers to real jobs: Genesys Works

It’s easy to mistake the Genesys Works offices—located on the 39th floor of the KBR tower in downtown Houston—for the well-appointed workspace of a Fortune 500 company. A glass-paneled front door gives way to a reception area, then cubicles on the left and offices on the right that hum with activity.

Inside two large meeting rooms at the opposite end of the office suite, young people are assembled in semi-circles. Some are taking professional skills classes—how to interact with a supervisor, how to dress appropriately, how to build confidence—while others are immersed in technical training. From their appearances it would be easy to mistake these high-school students as products of middle-class families. In fact, they all come from at-risk backgrounds.

“We exist to change the trajectory of life for low-income kids, from one of dead-end jobs and minimum-wage employment to one where they will be able to succeed in the economic mainstream as professionals,” explains Rafael Alvarez, founder of Genesys Works.

Alvarez was inspired to start the nonprofit in 2002 after spending years as a corporate strategist for a large corporation. On the side, he served on the board of a local charter school. That experience led him to an important conclusion: there are untapped opportunities in the corporate world for rudderless youth, if they’re given a chance and pushed by high expectations.

Young people enter his program the summer prior to their senior year in high school. After eight weeks of intensive training they are given a year-long part-time job with one of many business partners. These are not make-believe slots, but paid positions with significant duties and chances to earn valuable experience.

“One thing the students learn very quickly is that Genesys Works is not a handout,” Alverez says. “It’s an opportunity. But they have to work at it.”

All participants must be on track to graduate from high school and able to spend afternoons of their senior year on the job. The most important requirement is that they be eager to work. They are selected in cooperation with the Houston school system. The youngsters targeted are what Alvarez calls the “quiet middle”—not troublemakers or on the verge of dropping out, but also not excelling in life, so far. Many of these “middlers” will be the first in their families to graduate from high school.

The key mechanism that keeps the Genesys Works engine humming is an alliance with local businesses and corporations who provide the job placements. The nonprofit recognizes that their students must provide tangible benefits to the company at the same time that they are improving themselves.

“We help a company get a job done that they need anyway, at less cost than they would have to pay at a competing for-profit firm. And at the same time we have a social mission of changing the lives of students. So engaging clients is relatively easy,” says Alvarez. Companies like Wells Fargo, ExxonMobil, GE Oil & Gas, and JPMorgan Chase work with the program, which saw 333 young people complete both its training and work portions in a recent school year.

Students are hired as independent contractors, not employees. The nonprofit bills the companies at a set rate, compensates its young people, and keeps a slice of revenue itself to fund its operating costs. The Houston chapter of Genesys Works gets about three quarters of its operating budget from contracting revenue. The remaining fourth comes from philanthropic investments by donors like the Houston Endowment, New Profit, and the Jenesis Group.

The Jenesis Group first supported Genesys Works in 2009 with operational capital and support for their building. They were attracted by its self-financing aspect, and appreciated that Genesys Works listens for the skills needed by the marketplace and responds accordingly, rather than just treating the internships like college-prep. The foundation helped launch a new Genesys Works chapter in San Francisco in 2012, and recently made a three-year, $3.5 million commitment to help Genesys Works strengthen its infrastructure so it can grow more aggressively in the future.

Participants must sign an agreement that stipulates immediate expulsion for drug use, and a lower stipend for being even one minute late to class.

Already Genesys Works has expanded beyond Houston to the Twin Cities, Chicago, and, as mentioned, the Bay Area. The organization looks at four indicators before moving to a new city: a large population of students in need, a school system willing to form a partnership, businesses willing to hire, and a solid base of donors. In San Francisco, Genesys started with corporate support from AT&T and the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, and philanthropic seed money from the Greenlight Fund and Tipping Point.

There are other organizations that link at-risk kids to real-life work in ways similar to Genesys Works. Indeed, philanthropists anxious to support direct job placements as the surest route to helping struggling youngsters now have many models to choose from. Three additional examples are the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Alliance, Boston-born Year Up, and Taller San Jose in California.

Urban Alliance

Urban Alliance recruits its students from big-city high schools with some of the highest dropout rates in the United States. It exposes them to real work and gives them opportunities to succeed. It finds this can change lives.

The nonprofit has served more than 10,000 young people across its four locations. Its formula is built on the idea that the social isolation of young people who come from poor neighborhoods can have many detrimental effects. The group takes teenagers who often have never had a personal relationship with a model of success, and exposes them to the daily work done at corporations like Bank of America, Capital One, Morgan Stanley, Verizon, and Marriott.

Urban Alliance targets youngsters between their junior and senior years in high school. Low-income African-American and Latino students are the primary market. A minimum GPA of 2.5, being on track for graduation, and a positive attitude are required, excluding many students from the mix.

During the summer, those selected attend an unpaid, multi-week boot camp that teaches work skills. After successful training, they are placed in an entry-level part-time job at a major corporation. UA staff serve as career mentors, and contact students every week. Students remain in their jobs for nine months, typically working from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. each weekday except for Fridays, when they attend ongoing professional workshops at Urban Alliance offices. These sessions include training in financial literacy, post-high-school planning, and life skills. Partway through the year, students get a job evaluation on 10 hard skills and 10 soft skills, reflecting the real-world realities of being in the paid work force. High-performing students are eligible for wage increases. Many of these students are surrounded in the rest of their life by peers who encourage them to quit when challenges arise, says Nathaniel Cole, executive director of the Washington, D.C., chapter. The UA program pushes them to persevere through obstacles. “The great thing about our mentors is that we’re challenging young people in areas where they haven’t been challenged before,” he states.

Students who complete the program are then connected to Urban Alliance’s alumni-services staff, which stays in touch with them for the next four years. To date, Urban Alliance has shepherded 100 percent of its participants through high-school graduation, and 90 percent have gone on to attend college. Of those who start college, 80 percent remain enrolled at least through their second year.

Time management and financial literacy are two of the largest issues that Urban Alliance teaches. “The time management component is huge,” notes Cole. “How to balance school, this job experience they’ve just signed on for, and then life.” In addition, Urban Alliance throws more unusual items into the mix, such as healthy eating and exercising.

Urban Alliance relies on a revenue-generating component for much of its funding. For each student who participates in an internship, the hiring company makes a tax-deductible donation of $12,500 to Urban Alliance. The organization then pays the students $10 per hour. The residual retained by Urban Alliance doesn’t cover the full cost of the program, but it dramatically reduces the additional philanthropic investment needed to keep the program operating.

One of Urban Alliance’s greatest challenges is finding enough corporate partners. Often, the organization lacks enough job sites to offer every student who goes through pre-work the opportunity for an intern job. Students have to be put on a waiting list until a position opens.

Urban Alliance has branches in northern Virginia, Baltimore, and Chicago. When considering new chapters, the group considers community need, the availability of partners providing jobs, and practical factors like whether companies are accessible by public transportation. If the nonprofit can line up 70 paid jobs for students at the $12,500 level, they are willing to build a team and establish a presence in a new city.

Year Up

Shortly after he graduated from college in the late 1980s, ­­­­­­­­­­­Gerald ­Chertavian mentored, through the Big Brother program, a young man who lived in a public-housing project in Manhattan. The experience convinced him that too much human talent was being wasted among poor children. After the success of a company he co-founded, he used $500,000 of his own money and support from other donors to create a nonprofit aimed at linking young people from struggling families with productive workplaces.

The new organization Year Up was launched in Boston in 2000. It works with young people ages 18 to 24 with a high-school diploma or GED, but no clear next step in their lives. High-school guidance counselors and organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters and the YMCA help identify candidates. It can be a tricky clientele: many of them ­Spanish-speaking, averaging 1.9 as a high-school GPA, and 780 as an SAT score. One crucial screen: participants must be “at-risk but not high-risk”—that is, not use drugs or have committed violent crime.

The program can be tough. It requires a detailed application, a writing sample, references, and two interviews. For every 100 young adults who say they are interested, only 25 will complete the application process, and only 10 will be accepted. Participants must sign an agreement that stipulates immediate expulsion for drug use, and a lower stipend for being even one minute late to class. Those accepted receive six months of full-time training. If they make it through that, they begin a six-month internship at a corporate partner, where most of them carry out ­computer-related jobs.

The training is described as “high-expectation, high-support.” It addresses social and emotional development, time use, “behavior management,” conflict resolution, personal finance, writing skills, and even current affairs, so graduates will be at home in a corporate environment. “To lower the bar is a disservice to our students,” Chertavian adds. “It’s disrespectful not to have high expectations.”

Making the program an attractive business proposition is the best way to recruit partnering firms.

Year Up participants receive staff advising on personal as well as professional issues, and are assigned a mentor from the business community. Students receive a $30-a-day stipend for living expenses while they are training (though they lose $25 of that if they are late for class). Once they begin working they get a weekly stipend of roughly $200, paid by the corporate partners—who also help Year Up itself defray roughly $2,000 out of the $11,000 annual cost per student. (The remaining expenses are covered by foundations, companies, and individual supporters.)

Year Up was designed partly to help corporations fill back-office jobs that they are having trouble finding adequate candidates for. Making the program an attractive business proposition is the best way to recruit partnering firms. More than 250 corporations across the country now collaborate with Year Up, which has become a reliable “pipeline” for some of the companies to graduate workers into technical, customer service, and sales positions.

“We often get pigeonholed as a charitable act, but we’ve built a $70 million business on providing corporate America with talent that they can hire,” says Chertavian. The goal is for companies to hire their temporary placements after the Year Up training is complete. Even if they don’t, the participant has a new toolbox of skills and a working track record that can be taken to the next career opportunity. He or she also earns between 18 and 30 college credit hours for completing the program.

Four months after graduation, 84 percent of Year Up participants are either working or attending college full time. The average wage of workers is $16 per hour. That’s 30 percent more than a control group of peers outside the program earned.

By 2015, Year Up was training 2,700 students annually in 11 cities across the U.S. The key quality the program seeks in participants? Motivation. “We ‘screen in’ based on motivation,” reports Chertavian. “If someone is motivated,” he says, “in one year we can pretty much guarantee that they’ll be in a livable-wage job.”

Dealing with the toughest cases: Taller San Jose

Genesys Works, Urban Alliance, and Year Up target youth who are in the lower tier of achievement but have at least avoided active anti-social behavior. Taller San Jose focuses on an even more endangered cohort. It intervenes with troubled youths who are already involved with the criminal justice system, have a history of drug or alcohol abuse, or are otherwise on the road to conflict, failure, and dependence.

Taller San Jose (Spanish for “St. Joseph’s Workshop”; Joseph being the patron saint of work) was founded in Orange County, California, in 1995 by a group of Catholic nuns. TSJ’s mission is to train 18- to 28-year-old southern Californians who have gotten into trouble—many of them as gang members—in technical professions and life skills, with the ultimate goal of building life-long self-sufficiency. Every year, the group bears down on 350 of these difficult individuals, and since its launch it has helped 8,000 of them develop marketable skills and find employment. Fully 72 percent of enrollees are employed one year after graduating, at an average starting wage of $11.13 per hour.

TSJ’s program has four main components:

  • Coaching
    When young people first arrive, a specialist helps them establish a plan built around individual goals. One-on-one coaching and mentoring over a two-year period is a key component of the program.
  • Skill building
    This technical training is focused on four industries—construction trades, health care, health-care administration, and business technology. Each young person is enrolled in a track that suits his or her interests and aptitudes.
  • Job placement and retention
    TSJ has relationships with local employers looking for trained workers in one of the four industry tracks. After placement, continuing efforts help new hires keep their jobs and advance.
  • Career-to-education pathway
    TSJ partners with community colleges and vocational schools to encourage continuing education that keeps workers current and helps them increase their wages and opportunities in the future.

For the first four to five months, skill-building is the main emphasis. The training is provided in an atmosphere like a workplace and treated as a job, with the trainees receiving a stipend. About 75 percent of those who start this portion of the program complete it. After that point, about 80 percent of the students persevere through the remaining employment and education components to complete the full program. Reflecting its challenging clientele, TSJ is a full two-year commitment—longer than others we have so far profiled.

Participants are not required to have a high-school diploma, and many don’t. TSJ focuses more on basic skills—ability to read, write, and be responsible. Applicants accepted into TSJ must have math and literacy skills no higher than the fifth- to eighth-grade level. The rationale for this is that individuals with greater skills can rely on other resources like community colleges. TSJ is aimed at the most deficient populations, who will be left behind and forgotten without their intervention.

Of those who attend TSJ, 77 percent are unemployed, 65 percent are skills deficient, nearly all are low income. Many lack English-language skills, 27 percent have a criminal background, and 30 percent are parents.

The program works intensively with its charges all day every week day. Executive director Shawna Smith says the rigorous nature of the program makes it stand out from other job-training efforts. Building strong trusting relationships with the young people over a two-year period is crucial. When things start to go sideways, as they inevitably do, the young person knows that TSJ will support him, while also demanding good performance.

The other trademark of the program is treating businesses in the community as customers who need to be pleased. “We are very much informed by what local employers need in terms of skills,” Smith says. “We are constantly looking at labor-market data to find growing industry sectors, what skill sets are needed there, and where there are skill gaps in our surrounding labor market.”

The organization has always been funded primarily by private philanthropy. Some top donors include the Weingart Foundation and the California Wellness Foundation. “Private philanthropy has given us the freedom to respond to problems in the organization and fix them,” Smith says. “If things aren’t working, we’re looking at why—what do we need to refine and adjust? Or do we need to get rid of that program? We can move pretty quickly. That’s helped us build a successful model.”

School-based paths to success: Pro-Vision

So far we’ve been looking at para-educational organizations, which swing into play to fill gaps and failures left behind by public schools. For donors interested in making investments within the education infrastructure, there are also worthwhile models to consider.

Building a whole school around workforce development is a tall order. It’s also an exciting opportunity. What better way to reach at-risk young people on the virtues and satisfactions and life-importance of work than through school? Houston’s Pro-Vision charter school is an intriguing example of how brick-and-mortar public education institutions can be dedicated to inculcating practical work skills.

Located in one of the more dangerous neighborhoods in the country, Pro-Vision is more than just a school—it’s an oasis whose mission is to renew an entire urban community. After retiring from the NFL in 1988, former cornerback Roynell Young moved to Houston to start a business career. While driving the neighborhoods of south Houston with a potential client, Young saw many listless African-American young men who were involved in little more than gang life and the drug trade. Young decided to take action.

Young and co-founder Mike Anderson created Pro-Vision in 1990 as a youth mentorship organization and recruited an initial class of young men to be taught the importance of positive values, responsible manhood, and a strong work ethic. In 1995, Pro-Vision grew into a charter school. It started with 80 students in sixth through eighth grade, and touched the lives of 4,000 young men over the next two decades.

Today, Pro-Vision occupies a 21-acre campus. We had an opportunity to visit the school and see its operations first hand, and it is a dramatic outlier in what is otherwise the urban desert of south Houston. In addition to the school building, it has an urban garden, obstacle course, football field, basketball court, a nature-walk circling the perimeter of the property, and plenty of room for growth and expansion. For many of the African-American young men it trains, this might be their first exposure to homegrown vegetables, and high expectations.

The first principle we practice here is that life owes you nothing. Everything is earned. If you do nothing, expect nothing.

The school was the first major investment in the surrounding ­Sunnyside neighborhood in many years. Young’s view is that if he can help this part of Houston become healthy, “then the rest of Houston is super healthy.” In addition to the charter school for middle- and ­high-school students, Pro-Vision operates a manhood academy designed to cultivate leadership, good character, and integrity among young males; an enterprise academy aimed at workplace success; and an urban farm intended to foster a strong work ethic.

Once students have completed the manhood-development classes, they are eligible to participate in the job-enterprise academy. In partnership with Houston corporations, the latter provides summer employment opportunities in a mix of blue-collar and white-collar positions. His young men rarely complain about their jobs, Young notes, because by that point they’ve had to work the urban garden in the sizzling heat of a Houston summer. To inculcate the importance of budgeting, Pro-Vision saves 25 percent of each student paycheck in an escrow account that can only be accessed in the future.

Young men work in part-time summer jobs Monday through Thursday each week. On Friday, they return to Pro-Vision for intensive workshops on financial literacy, business etiquette, and résumé writing. Like Genesys Works, Urban Alliance, and Year Up, this blend of real-world work and instructional time yields a mix of benefits—skills learned, contacts made, and improved rates of graduation from school. That package of results has high value.

Young lights up when he starts to talk Pro-Vision’s successes. Nine out of ten boys who enter his middle school end up graduating from high school. And 97 percent of the young men who graduate from the charter high school, manhood program, and enterprise training go on to either attend college or trade school, get a job, or serve in the military.

Young describes the underlying approach of the program as demonstrating success to young men who have never experienced what success really tastes like. It’s about teaching a new way of life—not just providing an education or job skills, but a new way of thinking and seeing the world. The teachers at Pro-Vision seek to eliminate any sense of entitlement from the students.

“Our kids are suffering from not understanding the process of success,” Young says. “They see it on TV and on the Internet, but they don’t understand the process. They don’t know how to connect the dots. They don’t know what the habits are. The first principle that we practice here is that life owes you nothing. The only thing that life gave you is that you’re breathing, you’re healthy, and you’re of sound mind. Everything else is earned. Here, if you do nothing, expect nothing.”

Using entrepreneurship to hook the young: BUILD, Juma, Dakota

An alternative to training young people to take jobs in big companies is to excite their entrepreneurial spirit. Surveys show that younger people have fewer inhibitions and more inclination to consider enterprising work. What would happen if those ambitions were tapped and encouraged among kids who are at economic risk?

Donors and foundations are finding out. In the late 1990s, legendary venture capitalist Franklin “Pitch” Johnson offered support to launch BUILD—a San Francisco Bay-area organization that uses the hook of entrepreneurship to entice at-risk young people into a life of fulfilling, self-supporting work. Today, BUILD enjoys strong support from the Coatue, New Profit, Tipping Point, and Michael & Susan Dell foundations, and the SalesForce.com, Wells Fargo, and PwC corporate foundations.

At sites in Boston and Washington, D.C. as well as northern ­California, BUILD provides a four-year high school program that can be taught in either charter schools or conventional public schools. It targets ­students who are likely to drop out of high school without an ­intervention. BUILD gives these underperforming and disengaged students opportunities to conceive, design, and run businesses.

“The idea of creating a business and making money is appealing to these students,” says Paul Collins, BUILD’s Bay Area director.

In ninth grade, BUILD teaches youngsters how to work as a team on a business plan. They get four opportunities to present the plan to audiences at their school, then eventually take part in a business-plan competition at the end of their freshman year.

In tenth grade, the students begin to turn their business plan into a practical entity. They create executive roles and apportion responsibilities for manufacturing, sales, marketing, finance, and all other ­business-related details. They adapt their product according to feedback they get from the “marketplace” of other students.

A few of these business plans might lead to the launching of actual enterprises. And the process of creating them will get some students interested in particular work with existing firms. But actual commerce and short-term employment is not the goal. Excitement that leads the student to take ownership of his education and future direction is the goal.

While BUILD students are offered internships and career planning in their eleventh and twelfth grades, the first emphasis then is on preparing them for college. The program uses its entrepreneurial training as “experiential education” that motivates learning. It seems to work: Fully 96 percent of BUILD enrollees graduated from high school in 2014. And 84 percent of grads enrolled in four-year college, while another 11 percent continued their education in some other form. BUILD thus is principally a college-readiness program that uses entrepreneurship as a way to inspire young adults.

Another Bay Area charitable program takes a very different approach—involving at-risk youth directly in day-to-day business as a discipline, an opener of horizons, and a source of cold, hard cash. “The best ­social-service program in the world is a job,” says Adriane Gamble­ Armstrong, the chief operating officer of Juma Ventures. “If we can connect a youth to workforce-development skills and an actual job with income, he or she has the ability to become a productive member of society.”

The organization started in 1993 employing homeless teens at its own Ben & Jerry’s franchise in San Francisco. Over the next few years it branched out to other scoop shops and then the sports-stadium concession business. In 1996 it earned a contract to sell food and drink at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, employing 40 young people.

“I’ll never forget my second night out at Candlestick,” writes one early student vendor. “It was about 30 degrees and raining. I was standing behind this cart, freezing. For the first half of the game I was standing there doing nothing. Then I looked up and I had this long line. My fingers curled up from holding the scoop, but I kept working. I was able to pace myself and get through the day, get my line down, get everything back to normal. I felt like I accomplished something that day.”

The concession model took off, and since then, more than 4,000 kids have earned over $4 million at stadiums throughout the U.S. through Juma, gaining real work experience, money, and intensive life coaching from staff members, all at the same time.

Juma recruits students through partnerships with schools, social services agencies, and other nonprofits, choosing kids from that middle group who face obstacles but have the drive to take advantage of its programs. Those it accepts get help in three areas: employment, academic support, and financial literacy and asset building.

Participants hail from low-income families with no experience of higher education. Absent intervention, many would never graduate from high school, nevermind enroll in college. And among those from this demographic background who do make it to college, only a fifth typically complete a degree. By contrast, 97 percent of Juma students graduate from high school and 70 percent earn a college degree within five years.

Jonny Alejandre didn’t want to go at first, but his mother urged him to attend the Juma Ventures presentation at his high school. “I don’t know what would’ve happened if I hadn’t agreed,” says the 17-year-old junior. “It’s so surreal that one small event can drastically change your life.”

Before Juma, says Alejandre, “something ‘umph’ was missing” from his life. Now he’s getting his “umph” by running up and down bleachers selling pizza and popcorn at AT&T Park in San Francisco, saving his paychecks for college. “The sporting venue is a hook for many young men, especially,” says Armstrong. “Once they’re in, we can involve them in our other programs.” The students learn personal responsibility, cash handling, punctuality, prioritizing, dress, and communication.

“I learned so much at Juma Ventures—stuff I can use for the rest of my life,” writes Loretta Gomes, another former Juma student. “If I would not have taken the class seriously I would have probably lost my job…. When I graduated Juma I not only walked away with new skills and a better attitude, a brighter future. I walked away with pride in myself, a confidence of knowing that I could handle every task given to me at work.”

Students put their paychecks in individual development accounts, with matching funds of up to three-to-one offered by Citibank, BlackRock, and other donors. The funds can be used for higher education and other approved expenses. Juma also provides tutoring, SAT prep, and application and financial aid guidance to get kids into college. And it offers continuing advice, services, and counseling once students are on campus.

George Roberts’ REDF and the Charles and Helen Schwab ­Foundation have supported Juma from the start. Along with monetary gifts, supporters have pitched in with pro bono services to help Juma thrive and grow. Gap Inc. gives professional development workshops for the group’s staff. The Surdna Foundation is helping Juma open new sites in Sacramento and Los Angeles. This assistance now allows Juma to serve 1,200 teens in cities stretching from San Diego to ­Seattle to New Orleans.

“Going through the program has really made me think about what I want to do, and how to use what I have in order to achieve those goals,” says Alejandre. “It takes you out of your comfort zone and pushes you to be better, and grab the most potential out of yourself that you can.”

A third effort to use the romance of small business ventures to touch kids not easily reached through traditional schooling is the work of the Dakota Foundation. In conjunction with the University of North Dakota Center for Innovation, the Dakota Foundation funds a series of two-week summer camps for Native American children. Their ­Entrepreneurship Education Program exposes middle- and elementary-school students to entrepreneurial thinking and career-building skills. The program is available on every Native American reservation in North Dakota and also in some public schools.

Bart Holaday, president of the Dakota Foundation, explains that this venture is an effort to help low-income Native American youth understand entrepreneurship. The Dakota Foundation will devote $600,000 to entrepreneurship education in 2015. “Our objective is to try to help people help themselves, through improving their skills and becoming more economically self sufficient,” he says.

Mentorship as a pathway to success: Colorado Uplift and Friends of the Children

A simple but often crunching obstacle faced by disconnected youth is their social environment. Detached from success, opportunity, and hope, often surrounded by non-work, drug abuse, risky sexual behavior, dependence, and a fatalistic view of life, many of them are trained in failure from an early age.

A single meaningful relationship with a successful person can sometimes make a difference. Research has shown the value of mentoring programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters. These reduce the likelihood that students will act in harmful ways or drop out of school. Mentorship is also used by some charitable programs to chip away at the problem of youth unemployment. Colorado Uplift and Friends of the Children are two examples.

Colorado UpLift was founded in 1982 to link troubled urban youths with jobs. But the founder soon discovered he was reaching young people too late in the process—many of them failed to show up or stick to their jobs once they got them. Earlier interventions were needed. Mentorship turned out to make a big difference. Today, Colorado UpLift is built on the premise that the core problem facing inner-city urban youths is a shortage of healthy relationships.

The best social-service program in the world is a job. The students learn personal responsibility, cash handling, punctuality, prioritizing, dress, and communication.

The organization pays full-time, credentialed staff to teach, coach, and guide young people. These staff develop long-term relationships as early as elementary school and continue them through middle school, high school, and early adulthood. Special emphasis is placed on character development, life skills, career preparation, and leadership. The aim is for each child to have at least one positive adult role model consistently throughout their teenage years.

“We never give up on students, despite what they might say or do,” says Monique Jaramillo, a program manager for Colorado UpLift who herself came through the program in the early 1990s. “We love them through the bad and we love them through the good. We celebrate the good. We are those surrogate parents—father and mother figures—that are missing.”

Programmatically, Colorado UpLift has four components.

  • “In School” where 220 classes are held each week, right within the Denver public schools, teaching good character and life skills
  • “After School” where staff use bonding activities and skill instruction to connect to kids
  • “Adventure” where mentors and kids engage in outdoor activities
  • And “Post-secondary” where the group preps students for college

The organization acknowledges that postsecondary education is not for everyone. They have a jobs-readiness program for high-school students looking to get a job right away that trains young people in how to interview, create a résumé, and act with poise and confidence.

Since its inception, Colorado UpLift has worked with 30,000 kids in the Denver area. Ninety percent of participants graduate from high school, and 86 percent go on to pursue either a four- or two-year college degree or vocational training. Every year, Colorado UpLift works with thousands of young people through the 260 classes it conducts in 27 ­Denver public schools. The intensive mentoring that links paid staff to kids on ­one-to-one bases is available to a smaller subset of kids as it is obviously expensive. Under the nonprofit Elevate USA, the program has been introduced to four other states: Florida, Arizona, New York, and Oregon.

To retain operating independence, the organization does not accept government grants. It relies on foundation support. Most recently, the Anschutz, Lewis Family, and Peieris foundations and the Daniels Fund have been substantial supporters of the Denver organization.

Another successful mentoring organization was founded by donor Duncan Campbell. For him, the issue of children growing up under stress is a personal one. His childhood family had two alcoholic parents; his dad went to prison twice; they subsisted on welfare. “I didn’t want any other child to have the life that I had,” Campbell says.

Despite his troubled background, Campbell succeeded in business. He founded a timber investment firm, sold the company in the early 1990s, then turned his thoughts to philanthropy. He hired a child psychologist to help him research the best ways to reach and help children from troubled backgrounds. Their conclusion: An early exposure to a positive adult role model was crucial. That’s when Friends of the ­Children was born in Portland, Oregon, starting in 1993 with three social workers and 24 participating youngsters.

The FOTC model pairs threatened children with trained, paid full-time mentors—called “friends”—from kindergarten through twelfth grade. The friends aim to make sure that their charges progress through school, aren’t incarcerated, and don’t get pregnant out of wedlock. Mentors take on no more than eight children each, so that they are able to give each their full attention for no less than four hours each week.

Obviously that is an expensive proposition. Cognizant of costs, FOTC seeks out the youngsters who are most endangered. Their “reverse draft” allows the organization to serve young people with real troubles, who are highly likely to end up in trouble absent some intervention. Friends of the Children has mentored almost 1,000 of such children since its beginning.

“The entire program is built on the relationship that the friend develops with the child,” Campbell says. “They learn a work ethic. Every child does some sort of work at every age level, such as selling lemonade or cutting a lawn or serving coffee.” Working side-by-side with their charges, mentors assist with homework, teach skills like cooking and doing laundry, and inculcate social graces and constructive attitudes.

FOTC has expanded beyond Oregon. The organization currently serves over 800 children in five cities: Portland, New York, Boston, Seattle, and Klamath Falls, Oregon. A Microsoft employee helped bring the organization to Seattle. Lawyers and judges introduced it to New York City. A venture capitalist brought the program to Boston. Thanks to an offshoot of the Eckerd Family Foundation, an affiliated group using the core of the FOTC curriculum is now operating in Tampa Bay, Florida.

Duncan Campbell’s family foundation launched Friends with three investments totaling around $2 million. Campbell gradually pared down his investments as larger foundations jumped on board and individual donors and businesses began to underwrite the group. Recent supporters include the Hearst, Robert Wood Johnson, Thrive, and Edna McConnell Clark foundations, the May & Stanley Smith Charitable Trust, and the M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust.

The biggest obstacle facing FOTC is the very high costs of its intensive paid mentoring—nearly $10,000 per child annually. Campbell acknowledges this is a brake on the program, but notes there are savings to society when the program is effective. “Friends of the Children breaks the cycle of poverty,” he argues. “It breaks the cycle of kids dropping out. It breaks the cycle of kids being in the juvenile justice system, and the cycle of teen parenting.”

Participating children graduate from high school at an 83 percent rate, even though 60 percent of their parents lack a high-school degree. While 50 percent have a parent who has been incarcerated, 93 percent of participating kids stay clear of the juvenile justice system. And although 85 percent of them were born to a teenage parent, 98 percent of mentees avoid early childbirth.

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